“What is this?” asked Amaryllis when I placed the uniform down on the table. It took her a moment to find the patches, and when she did, she stared at them for a moment, then looked at me.

“I have theories,” I said. “The top theory is that someone from Earth came to Aerb, not through a dream-skewer, but through some actual, physical means. And if I had to guess what that was, then given this outfit, I think it’s probably the one major campaign that I’ve never seen much sign of on Aerb, the Long Stairs. And if I had to guess where the Long Stairs are, then yeah, I would say that’s the dimensional tunnel in Fel Seed’s zone.”

Raven and Amaryllis stared at me.

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Raven.

“There are holes in the theory,” I replied. They were holes that I thought could be patched. “Which one, to you, is the biggest?”

“Sorry,” she said, rubbing her face. “Can you describe the Long Stairs again?”

“There was a forum post, on the internet,” I said. “It was for a setting idea, which was, basically, that when the first nukes went off in New Mexico or wherever, it opened up a rift to another world, a gigadungeon without any end, twisting and warping itself so that it was unmappable, filled to the brim with monsters and traps, with the military of the United States going in to clear it … it was one of those things where I read it, and then had a bunch of ideas that were different than the direction other people wanted to take it, so I just went off and built it on my own, and ran my players through it, taking from a lot of different sources, like the SCP Foundation. The short version is that I moved it to Oregon, dropped the nuclear weapons thing, invented a backstory for this facility, invented a component of the armed forces dedicated to studying, exploring, and exploiting it, invented monsters, features, things like that. It was a thresher by design, diegetically and non-diegetically. And it got worse once Arthur died.”

Amaryllis was still staring at the flag. “It can’t go to Earth.”

“Well,” I said. “It can’t go to my Earth, unless, unknown to me, there really was a facility in Oregon, which my campaign just happened to create a close-enough version of. Or maybe the Long Stairs go to Earth in some other way, or —”

“Why would Uther not tell anyone?” asked Raven.

“I have no fucking idea,” I said. “Why didn’t he ever tell anyone that he was really from Earth? I can make a bunch of uneducated guesses, but there are a lot of questions that I’m ready to ask him if we ever find him.”

“You put forward a theory with lots of inference,” said Amaryllis. She was examining the patch up close. She looked up at me. “You know that we have access to an entad that could make something exactly like this?”

“Do you think that’s likely?” I asked. “That Uther had an entad like the backpack, which he used to make this, and then put it into a hidden closet in a faraway castle, where it lay, forgotten? Honestly, he wouldn’t even need to use an entad, he could just do some sewing.”

“But why would he place it there, if it’s real?” asked Amaryllis.

“Proximity,” said Raven. “By ley line, Glassy Fields and Fel Seed aren’t far from each other.” She had a far-off look on her face. “I’m trying to place this in the timeline. That castle is in Terrormoor, or was before the exclusion, and he didn’t have that property until 22 FE. That’s the lower bound, unless he acquired it and then moved it later, though that would mean the proximity explanation doesn’t hold.”

“Are you taking this seriously?” asked Amaryllis.

“It’s the answer you were looking for,” replied Raven. She hadn’t touched the uniform, conspicuously hadn’t touched it, like it was radioactive, or laced with poison.

“Maybe,” said Amaryllis, frowning a bit. She looked up at me. “Does this help us at all?”

“In the scheme of things, no,” I replied. “If true, which it probably is, I think it tells us where Uther was going, and I think it’s not hard to understand why.”

“Conceptually, the Long Stairs are infinite, aren’t they?” asked Amaryllis.

“As I designed them … yes, no, it’s hard to say. My personal version of the Long Stairs, which is the direction I think this points, was inspired by this game called Rogue Legacy, which — sorry, computer game, a, uh, platformer — the map was randomly generated, but it was random within bounds. You would always know that this particular section would be north of that particular section, and even though it was different every time, you’d get some sense of where things were in relation to each other. There was a directionality to the gigadungeon, and if you thought of the individual rooms and hallways like node traversal on a huge graph, you could go ‘deeper’, toward where magic and threats were stronger. There were ‘stations’, usually cities with their own hostility and rules, places that you would come across on your way ‘down’.” I paused. “How much of this do you have in your notes already?”

“I’ll have to look,” replied Amaryllis. “I think I was focused more on the phenomena that were in that campaign, rather than the physical structure of the place. The notes are in Sable, I’ll put an Amaryllis on it next time I merge with Prime.”

“You’re not?” asked Raven.

“No,” said Amaryllis, shaking her head. “Prime is dealing with logistics right now. We’ll merge soon though, and I’ll do some other merges to put scholarselves on the Long Stairs, now that we suspect that it might actually be important. I don’t think that it substantially changes anything though, considering that to get there, we would still have to go into Fel Seed’s zone, and if not defeat him, then at least get past him.”

“It means we have a better idea of how to prepare,” I said. “And we have some idea of what we’re getting into.”

“And what we’d be getting into is bad?” asked Raven.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, yes, it’s bad, but the Long Stairs weren’t meant for someone of my power, they were relatively low-magic. Actually, that directionality was a part of it, with magic increasing as you went down, so … I guess if the Long Stairs were woven into the patchwork of Aerb, and Aerb was the endpoint, then it would get easier as you went along a path back to Earth? Meaning that all the challenge was front-loaded, which is, uh, not how things are usually done.”

“But if we accept all this,” said Amaryllis. “That would mean that this specific uniform came down the Long Stairs by way of Earth, and then — it would be around the year 2500 there?”

“You might think that, yeah,” I said. “But my guess is that it’s Narnia rules, and if we came waltzing out of the Long Stairs at the facility in Oregon, and by some miracle we’re not immediately shot by the military forces there — I guess they have a policy of containment and analysis, but either way — Narnia rules would mean almost no time would have passed.”

“It can’t be Earth though,” said Amaryllis.

“Why?” I asked. I somehow felt like we should have been on different sides of this conversation.

“No, I understand,” she replied. “If the Dungeon Master is capable of creating Aerb, then he’s also capable of creating Earth, but — there has to be a higher level of reality.”

“No, there doesn’t,” I said. “Not one that’s accessible to us, anyway.”

“But what would it mean?” asked Amaryllis. “It would be one thing to dangle Earth in front of us, but to make an Earth that’s clearly under his dominion — if there’s something like godhood waiting for you at the end of this, would you be god of Earth as well?”

“Ugh, I hope not,” I replied. “I mean, on the object level, yes, I would prefer that Earth had a nice, loving, caring god, rather than no god at all, or, I guess … the Dungeon Master as a god.” I frowned. “Ah fuck, that would mean that the Christians were right all along.”

“We’re getting ahead of ourselves,” said Raven. “We don’t know what this means.”

“If going to Glassy Fields was a prayer, or a weird form of pilgrimage, then this was the answer,” I said, gesturing at the uniform and its conspicuous flag. “It’s a clear message saying that we can continue, full steam ahead.”

“Or it was sitting there all along, waiting to be found,” said Raven. “How many times now have you come across another thread that points back at an existing plot point that you already covered?”

“Lots,” I said. “And sure, that’s possible. But this isn’t actually pointing back at anything, it’s a uniform, nothing more, it wouldn’t be able to point us at the dimensional tunnel or Fel Seed.”

“That’s not technically true,” said Raven. “There’s an entad that can help track the worldline of any object.”

“Fine,” I replied. “Where and how can I get it?”

“I don’t think we need to,” said Amaryllis. “Where else would this uniform be from? Some wholly different line of quests?”

“The Long Stairs could be somewhere else,” replied Raven. “What’s the rationale for thinking that Uther left to go back to Earth?”

“He was fed up,” I replied. “He was done with the narrative and trying to end it. What more justification did he need?”

“He’d have been abandoning billions,” said Raven. “It might have been one thing if he was going to Earth for some purpose, if there was power there for him to grab, or some way to help Aerb, but we’ve seen nothing to show that’s true. The Uther that I knew — to say that he left because he’d declared victory? Or because he was homesick for a place he never once uttered a word of to anyone, somewhere he’d been gone from for forty years? He had a wife and three children.”

“We’ll get answers when we meet him,” I said. Nothing about her tone had been suspect, but taken together, the words held a lot of emotion. Raven still didn’t want to believe bad things about Uther, which I could empathize with, even if the weight of evidence seemed decidedly against him. What he’d done to Bethel, the murder of Vervain, the ways that he might have set in motion plots of misery for his companions in an effort to cultivate stories, it all cast an enormous shadow on a man who was often talked about with the reverence of an immortal god-king. Even if she believed all the points against him though, I wasn’t sure that the object-level truth would be enough. “Arthur, as I knew him, was pretty far from perfect. And as for Uther, he spent three full years of the Dark Lord’s reign being an actor, or maybe not even that, maybe just someone who traveled with the troupe. He wore himself down, doing what he did. The cracks definitely showed. I don’t know how or why he might have thought that going to Earth would solve things, but —”

“It’s the hero’s journey,” said Amaryllis. “The final part of the monomyth is the hero returning home.”

“Oh,” I said. “Right. And if you were the author of Degenerate Cycles, then you would probably fixate on that particular aspect, and if you found a way to go home, or a place that looked like home if you squinted at it just right … well, you would see that as the obvious endpoint of your adventure.” I looked at Raven. “Right?”

“Amaryllis has made the argument before,” Raven replied, lips thin.

“In any case,” I said. “I don’t think it changes anything. I can do another debrief on the Long Stairs campaign, if you think it will help, but if that’s what the dimensional tunnel is, then we still need to get there, which is a major fucking problem, because Fel Seed is in the way.”

“How sure are you of the Narnia conjecture?” asked Raven.

“The — what?” I asked.

“That time flows more slowly on Earth,” replied Raven.

“I’m not at all sure,” I replied. “But of the theories that we have for what the frick is going on, I think it’s fairly solid. I mean … the whole of Earth being on a roughly similar fictional level to Aerb actually resolves some questions that I had, like how some far-future civilization would be able to reconstruct Arthur once his brain was in the dirt. For me it made sense, because maybe at some point in the future my brain could be preserved, or this was some kind of reconstruction or regression built off of some later version of myself, but no, it ties things up neatly.”

“Except that then we have no idea what base reality looks like,” said Amaryllis. “That should alarm everybody.”

“If there even is a base reality,” I said. “Which there might not be.” I waved a hand. “Try not to get too bogged down in it, or if you’re going to, get a clone to do it.”

“Will do,” replied Amaryllis.

“I’m going to go speak with the tuung some more, if I’ve gotten a reprieve from the mandatory gold rush for a bit,” I said. “Let me know if there’s another mission.”

I flew off without waiting too long. It seemed like things with Raven were going to have to come to a head sooner than later, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.

Valencia, Grak, and an Amaryllis were gathered in the underground bunker, which sat in the heart of the complex at Necrolaborem. The room had been cleared of zombies, leaving just Blue-in-the-Bottle there, and he was behind thick wards that blocked his sight almost completely (which was obvious to me because I could see through his eyes).

“It’s not quite him,” Valencia said to me as soon as I came in.

“You should let me confirm that the wards are up first,” Grak grumbled.

“I know, from looking at you, that you’re confident in your warding,” said Valencia. “If you weren’t confident, I would have waited.”

“What do you mean it’s not him?” I asked.

“She means that she’s seen into Blue-in-the-Bottle’s soul and confirmed to herself that it’s not him,” said Grak. “The magical signature says otherwise, and the report from the Dorises does too.”

“Hang on,” I said. “What do you mean, ‘not him’?” I asked. “I mean, he’s not Blue-in-the-Bottle?”

“He might be,” said Valencia. “But the wards don’t contain him in some way. It’s him, but not the whole of him, in some way.”

“On what basis?” asked Grak.

“I don’t know that,” replied Valencia. “Amaryllis wanted me to come in here and see if I could pick up anything from him, so I did that. What I picked up was a level of unconcern that does not fit with everything else I know about him. He knows that he’s too valuable to kill, but he also has cards left to play in case we decide to kill him. We’re at least one contingency removed from having him backed into a corner, possibly two or three contingencies.”

“So you don’t know for certain that it’s not him?” I asked.

“No, I don’t,” replied Valencia. “But that’s what my considerable skill is telling me. If it is him, then he has some backup plan in case he dies.”

Grak frowned. “If that’s true,” he began, then thought about it for a bit. “It would have to be independent of his current body. Or only possible through some non-necromantic magic. Or not strictly linked to him in a way that’s detectable to me, which could hold off on activation while he’s wrapped in very complete wards.”

“Alright,” I said with a sigh. “This fuckin’ guy. Val, can you, I don’t know, interrogate him, get him to tell you all about what he’s actually up to?”

“I can,” she nodded. “I do have to warn you that it’s not going to be easy, given that it’s mediated by zombies. There will also be some risk if we can’t bottle him before he goes to the hells. If he did end up there, they would interrogate him, and it’s possible that they would get some understanding of who you are and who I am. Which would be bad.”

“Sure,” I said. “I trust your judgment.”

“You do?” asked Valencia, brightening.

I nodded. “You’re the subject matter expert. I would never second-guess Grak on wards. And … look, I’ve been practicing my forgiveness. The stuff with Fenn — so long as you understand my point of view, so long as you’ve changed the way you operate — at a certain point you just have to say that the past is the past, and the future will be the future. Because I really have missed you.”

Valencia beamed at me, and came in for a hug, which I accepted.

“Okay,” she said as she pulled away, looking at Blue-in-the-Bottle. “Time to see if I can crack him. No promises. Grak?”

Grak went over to the wards and removed some of them, allowing Valencia to speak with our captive. He had a single zombie standing next to him, helping him to speak.

“Who are you?” asked Elisha Blue, speaking through the zombie.

“Valencia the Red,” replied Valencia. “I’m the Republic of Miunun’s expert on large-scale logistics, my apologies for taking so long to come here.” I was mildly surprised that she hadn’t used a pseudonym, but she was a known quantity on Miunun, so I supposed it made sense.

“Ah, I see,” replied Blue, voice nearly monotone.

“I hope you’re not put off by the body,” said Valencia, gesturing to herself. “It’s a form I wear for convenience, though not much suited to the current moment. My day-to-day life, up to this point, has not involved particularly much in the way of house calls.”

She was putting on a voice and lying seamlessly. I was out of Blue’s view, and that of his zombie, and couldn’t see through Valencia’s eyes, but I had very little doubt that whatever her gambit was, he was buying it.

“You’re of the Second Empire,” said Blue. “You escaped the calamity and the purges?”

“No,” replied Valencia. “I’m second generation, sprefwent, the son of a stripped soul mage. Kershint Hellim, if the name means anything to you?”

Blue-in-the-Bottle’s zombie shook its head. “I never had the pleasure. You’ve come to talk logistics?”

“It’s the primary concern at the moment,” replied Valencia. “From their perspective, they want to ensure as much continued quality of life for the people who live here, while weaning off zombie labor.”

“I’ve been curious about that myself,” replied Blue-in-the-Bottle. “There are too many mouths to feed and not enough hands to pick up the work of harvesting kear.”

“That aside, you have processes and systems in place in order to handle distribution,” said Valencia. “The question is how best to take the reins from you and keep those pipelines flowing. From what you’ve told my associates, all of the movement of goods is accomplished by zombies through systems that you have set up but do not actually maintain.”

There was a moment of silence. “Do you doubt me?” he asked.

“No,” replied Valencia. “The scale of operations is too large for you to be handling everything by yourself, which means that the zombies must necessarily have some level of autonomy. Modern organizational structures are premised on a chain or matrix of command and reporting, but there’s no particular reason that you would be bound by that. The question is how things have been set up, how they can be altered, and how they can be replaced.”

“Replaced?” asked Blue. His zombie gave a small laugh. “They cannot be. A zombie can and does work continuously, without need for rest. To replace a zombie with a human would introduce all manner of logistical complications. Three humans working eight hour shifts would need changes of clothes, they would use hallways to return home, they would need resources that are not available at the kear sites. Each of those three humans would require training, and could hardly be counted upon to be as efficient, so you would need work crews rather than a rotating shift, and that’s simply to account for the replacement of a single zombie.” I could feel, more than see, a smile spread across his face. “I am, of course, ready and willing to help with whatever solutions to this dilemma your team can come up with.”

“Had you ever made plans for evacuation?” asked Valencia.

“Of the populace?” asked Blue. “No. The only things that would threaten us are attacks from outside and earthquakes, and we’re in a particularly stable region. There are, in fact, colonies that are nearly completely disconnected from the outside world, their initial shafts disconnected from the surface, with transport done almost entirely via teleportation.”

“That’s rather inconvenient,” replied Valencia. “It would also make replacement of labor much more difficult.”

“It would,” nodded Blue-in-the-Bottle’s zombie. “It is a fallacy of the propaganda against me that zombies are, simply, a replacement for human workers, alike in all regards aside from the fact that one is alive and the other dead. There are considerable advantages to necromancy which must be accounted for, and which will make disassembly of this nation quite a bit more difficult than if I had mere ‘slaves’.”

“There is some talk of simply murdering you and letting the whole enterprise go to rot,” said Valencia. “It’s not a particularly popular stance, given the times, but I have little doubt it’s what the Second Empire would have done, and in my view, they would have had the right of it.”

“The Empire of Common Cause would never go for it,” replied Blue-in-the-Bottle. He sounded smug, even speaking through a zombie.

“Oh, of course not,” replied Valencia. “But you’re certainly familiar with the moralists and how they operate. If you were killed, and your zombies with you, and there were some problems with even finding all the people you have hidden down here, let alone taking them out, then the Third Empire would wash their hands of the deaths easily enough. Or, perhaps, they might stage an investigation that would find a scapegoat of one kind or another, with the majority of the blame falling on you. The result would be that almost everyone involved would feel good about themselves, and the deaths of millions would be swept to the side with people breathing a guilty sigh of relief.”

“Is that a threat?” asked Blue-in-the-Bottle. His zombie’s eyes narrowed, but his face was still.

“Oh my, no,” replied Valencia. “The people I work with are moralists, and for the time being, they’re in charge. I’d be a fool to threaten something that my colleagues wouldn’t follow through on. I don’t even mean to point out that you’re in a precarious position, because I don’t particularly think that’s true. You have all those irreplaceable zombies as leverage, their labor, even now, helping you immensely. My guess is that the logistics will never be worked out, not with the costs involved, and that will mean that at least for the basics, food, water, washing, cleaning, and so on, we’ll need your undead labor. Obviously the pregnancies will be stopped, no more new zombies will be made, and the existing cohorts of children will be placed into the world with some socialization and training. That will take twenty years though, minimum, and I believe you’re secure until then, though my companions would desperately like to hear otherwise.”

“And after that twenty years?” asked Blue-in-the-Bottle.

“The world will probably end long before then, one way or another,” Valencia replied with a shrug.

“It will?” asked Blue-in-the-Bottle. I could only hear a twinge of emotion, but that twinge was fear and confusion.

“‘Ever onward, against the dark’,” replied Valencia. “The dark is coming for us, and if we manage to defeat it, it will be for good, the final victory that the Second Empire always dreamed of. The moralists are distracted by this current crisis, which is a shame, because these lives are ultimately meaningless in comparison with the fate of all sapients.”

“Do I know you?” asked Blue-in-the-Bottle. She was getting to him, I could tell, enticing him, making him curious.

“You knew a mentor of mine,” replied Valencia. “And I’m quite familiar with your work. But if you’ll excuse me for a moment, my companions have found some of this conversation quite troubling, so I must adjourn to assuage their petty morals.”

She stepped out from behind the wards and moved over to us.

“How did that go?” asked Amaryllis.

“He’s definitely got another body,” said Valencia. “But my guess is that it’s a single factor of backup, even if there are multiples of it. One method of coming back, multiplied. He’s playing it relatively cool, but he’s on the back foot. Disaffection is his strategy, pretending that he has us dead to rights, but he knows that it won’t be a winning move in the long term. He’s made active efforts to sabotage his operations so that reform and rescue will be extremely expensive, if not outright impossible, but I think he underestimates us. He’s been lying, sometimes to himself, other times with what he’d characterize as understandable ‘fibs’. He will do whatever it takes in order to extend his own life, and believes that when push comes to shove, almost everyone else in the world is the same, which is clearly nonsense. Let me know if there’s any more insight you need, I think I have a fairly good read on him. This is little more than confirmation of what we’d already expected.”

“Where would the other body be?” I asked. “I mean, it seems like he has a phylactery, right?”

“I am not convinced that such a thing exists,” said Grak, folding his arms.

“But if it did exist?” I asked. “Like, assuming for a second such a thing is possible?”

“It would require some unknown property of necromancy, or a specific entad,” said Grak. He seemed to think for a moment. “I can vaguely see Blue’s connections, and I’m capable of severing them. It is possible that if he died in that state, he would not live on. If he did, it would be because there is some necromantic magic that exists apart from his physical form.”

“Which is possible,” I said. “If necromancy is related to spirit in some way, then … I don’t know, this is mostly intuition.”

“Follow it,” said Amaryllis, watching me.

“Traditionally,” I replied. “Traditionally a necromancer hides their phylactery as best they can, so that when they die, they don’t actually die, they get reborn. Right? Or their soul, probably spirit in this case, goes into a new form, or was already stored somewhere for that eventuality. The question we have to ask is where he would put it. My guess is at a site that’s miles from here, a vault that you could only exit from the inside, a place that we’d have to use the Dorises to even find. But if that were the case, then … I don’t know why he would be confident.” I looked at Valencia. “Can you work on him?”

“Of course,” she nodded. “What do you want? He’s already convinced that I’m a fellow traveler, just one that doesn’t really care about him, which he respects.”

“Wait,” I said. I looked over at Amaryllis. “Fuck, I think I have it.”

“Have what?” asked Grak.

“The solution,” I said. “The butler did it.”

“Oh come on,” said Amaryllis. “That can’t be right.”

“Who is the butler?” asked Valencia.

“One of Blue-in-the-Bottle’s hands,” said Amaryllis. “We’ve met him twice.”

“Third time’s the charm, right?” I asked. “It’s him.”

“I have seen nothing from him,” said Grak. “If it’s somehow him, or he is a part of this, then it is cloaked somehow.”

“Here,” I said. “Let’s get him, I’ll show you, it’s dumb.”

“Dumb?” asked Amaryllis.

“If I’m right,” I said. “And if I’m wrong, I can explain it to you.”

It didn’t take long for us to find Terrence, who was looking more pale than he had been before, perhaps because he could see the writing on the wall, or maybe because he knew that we would have questions that he wouldn’t have an easy time answering. I regretted the threats I’d made against him.

“Hi Terrence,” I said. He squirmed under my gaze.

“Hello,” he replied.

“I have some very easy questions for you,” I said.

“Okay,” he replied, swallowing hard.

“First, what’s your last name?” I asked.

“Oh,” he said. “It’s … it’s Terrence, technically, sir.”

“Right,” I said. “Because you’ve got someone in your family who puts surnames first?”

He nodded slowly.

“Of course you do,” I replied. It was reasonably common on Aerb, though not expected here in Necrolaborem, and not necessary for the conclusion I’d already come to.

“Fuck,” said Amaryllis, who had always been pretty quick on the uptake, to put it mildly. “Oh fuck off, that’s moronic.”

“I’m missing something,” said Grak, looking between me and Terrence. It was clear from his face that Terrence knew he was missing something too, he was just staying quiet about it.

“His surname,” I said. “Which he never gave us. It’s Phylac.”

“How did you know that?” asked Terrence, staring at me with wide eyes.

“Phylac Terry,” said Amaryllis with a groan. “That motherfucker.”

Terrence, or Terry, was looking between us. “I’m … sorry?”

“This was a pun?” asked Grak.

“Yup,” I replied. “Not just a pun, but yes, we probably could have solved this whole thing a lot faster if we’d just asked this manservant his name in the first place. Maybe that’s the moral.”

“I,” said Terrence, then seemed like he was debating whether to say it. “I’m a butler, not a manservant.”

“Right,” I replied. “As I said, the butler did it.” It was almost funny.

“What?” he asked.

“Hold him down while I look inside,” I said.

“Wait,” said Valencia. She stepped forward and looked Terrence over. “Terrence, something was done to you by Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, likely at a very young age. That fear and uncertainty you feel, that you felt long before we came here? We think that we know what’s been driving it. There have been times in your life when you felt different from other people, like you were struggling to follow a script that they seemed to have memorized. If we’re right, we can fix that, but we need to find out whether you’re really as special as we think you are.”

“Okay,” said Terrence, letting out a breath. He rolled up a sleeve and held out his arm to me, then closed his eyes tight, so he wouldn’t have to watch. I gave Valencia a look, but she put her finger to her lips.

It took me some time to get into Terrence’s spirit, given the exclusion of soul magic. Blood magic and bone magic were still available, but I couldn’t get to the soul through them, and neither of them were connected to the spirit directly (or at least, not until they were in active use), meaning that I couldn’t cross the bridges that I was used to. Spirit had its own magical connections though, most obviously to passion magic, and connecting to Terrence was relatively easy once I tried to put myself in his shoes, to think and feel, as best I was able, what he was thinking and feeling.

Once I was in, it was obvious that Blue-in-the-Bottle had, in fact, done something. What, precisely, was not obvious. There were more threads than there should have been, far more, and the more I looked at them, the more it looked like Terrence had a whole second person’s spirit inside of him. He hadn’t acted like it though, and it was the kind of thing I would have expected Valencia to catch, so I was left to delve deeper in order to get an understanding.

Without access to the soul, the spirit was a lot more complicated. I wasn’t exactly flying blind, not quite, but it was harder to make sense of what the individual threads were doing, because I couldn’t reference the soul for more concrete examples. I could tell where threads were touching values, but not what those values were, and I could see interactions with skills in those places where concrete knowledge got turned into reality by way of actual thought. In the programming/computing metaphor I was used to, I was trying to figure out what the code did without having access to the source.

Elisha Blue had figured out a way to access spirit, which for all I knew, might have been a core part of necromancy from the very beginning. That he could do things to a living person was a bit shocking, but his power was such bullshit that I didn’t really question it. He had, after all, had a long time to learn things, especially when he’d had the benefit of necromancers who could do theory but no longer practice.

My best guess, based on what Valencia had said and what I suspected, was that Blue had copied over his spirit, rigging up another dead man’s switch of some kind so that he would take over Terrence. But that didn’t quite make sense to me, because you weren’t just your spirit, you were a combination of spirit, soul, and potentially (in some ways) body. It was true that you could use spirit to do almost anything that soul could do, because it could touch all of the values, but even then, if I assumed that Blue-in-the-Bottle had independently discovered spirit, and that he had become more proficient with it than anyone in the whole world had ever been, then that still wouldn’t have let him extend his life, because Terrence wouldn’t be him, he would just be —

Well, I couldn’t properly argue that it wouldn’t be him, because I didn’t actually believe that, but if I’d been Blue, I would be worried that I wouldn’t come out the other side quite the same. It would also mean that he would lose necromancy, if our understanding of enpersoned exclusions was correct. Maybe he was fine with that though, given that he had been trapped in a depressing country of his own making for hundreds of years, and this, maybe, would be a way out.

I wasn’t sure what would happen if we took Terrence across the border. My guess was that nothing would change, but it was worth trying anyway. If I were Blue-in-the-Bottle, willing to hijack someone like this for my own purposes, then I’d have made the changes I wanted to make with necromancy, however that had been done, then I would make sure that they wouldn’t simply be reversed by going beyond the border. And if he were really clever, he would have figured out some way to collapse or replace Terrence in the event that Terrence left the zone, on top of having one that would activate when Blue died.

“Hrm,” I said, pulling out.

“What’s going on?” asked Amaryllis.

I sculpted vibration magic so that Terrence couldn’t hear me, and faced away from him in case he could, against the odds, read lips.

“There’s something in his spirit,” I said. “It might take some time to figure it out and strip it from him. My guess at this point is that he’s capable of doing this to others as well. At this point, I think we have to assume that he’s been using necromancy to copy himself into other people.”

“By getting to them when they’re technically dead?” asked Amaryllis.

“No idea,” I said. “It would make sense though. And it would give us something to look for, some childhood trauma or surgery that would be the cover for something invasive and necromantic.”

“This would go beyond the borders of the EZ?” asked Grak.

“Maybe,” I said. “Probably.”

“But that would mean that he would be able to send agents out,” said Amaryllis. “He would be able to take a fraction of the people down in his cities and send them out into the world to build organizations, learn magic — do anything.”

“It’s not clear to me that he would,” said Valencia, frowning a bit. “I would have to talk to him more.”

“Why wouldn’t he?” asked Amaryllis. “It’s the logical thing to do. He could fill the world with versions of himself and cooperate in order to set up shell companies on the outside that would distribute his goods. Everyone would win.”

“He doesn’t care if everyone would win,” said Valencia. “He would only care that he wins. It would be about the risks and benefits of this imperfect, difficult duplication.”

“Probably not the time and place to talk about it,” I said. “We should either head back to Blue’s room, or get out from under his presumed panopticon altogether.”

“He’s limited,” said Valencia. “His lack of knowledge has been setting him on edge. He’s placing faith in his planning and preparations, as well as your moralism.”

“Okay,” I said. “Good to know.”

“We need more information,” sighed Amaryllis. “But I think we’re close to cracking this.”

There’s gold near. The voice of the call of gold was eminently unwelcome. Leave the complex, now.

“There’s gold near,” I said. “I need to get going.”

“We’ll handle it as much as we can,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll look for the cracks and follow the breadcrumbs.”


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Alexander Wales


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